Contributing Editor Jim Frank and Senior Editor Tom Cunneff debate the merits—or lack thereof—of televised golf

By: James A. Frank

Why I Don’t Watch Golf On TV

Three days of compelling Ryder Cup action is behind us, and once again that biennial match proved to be the best golf television of recent memory. Tight battles, see-sawing action, what ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” so eloquently characterized as “the human drama of athletic competition.” Great stuff.

And yet, I found it pretty easy to turn it off, walk away, take long breaks from sitting in front of the tube, and forget about what was going on at Medinah for hours and hours at a time.

Why? Two reasons: First, it was golf on television. Second, it was professional golf on television.

I’ve been watching televised golf for more than 35 years. I watched golf long before getting interested enough to play it. I grew up catching Arnie’s sunset; the heyday of Nicklaus and ascension of Watson; the birth of the Skins Game, the “silly season,” and the Senior Tour; the Tiger era. For most of that time, I was captivated and spent (or wasted) many a lovely weekend parked in front of a TV set. And for a number of years while working at Golf Magazine, even recording tournaments and watching the reruns in order to rate every televised golf event.

But sometime in the last 10 years, I’m not sure exactly when, I got bored with it all. Except for a few big tournaments—the Masters and the two Opens, mostly to see the courses, and the Ryder Cup—I rarely watch more than a minute or two on any given weekend, and that’s usually only if I’d read in the newspaper or online that there’s a particularly good battle, or someone I like is in the hunt (Tiger), or the venue is a course I’ve either never seen or actually played. 

Other than that, it bores me silly.

Despite TV’s technical innovations—shot trackers, biz hubs, slo-mos, putt lines, invasive microphones, and incredible close-ups—most golf events become putting contests, which means a long time watching some pro walk and crouch his or her way around the green. There’s an obvious analogy to football—10 seconds of action after three minutes of standing around—but at least in football the action is, well, active. Putting, even long bombs dropped, is pretty soporific stuff. (My wife said for years that golf on TV is great for sleeping. I now agree with her.)

And as for the quality of the announcing, let’s just say there is too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

Yes, there are more full swings shown than there used to be, and better visuals of them. But watching golf is watching target practice. The Ryder Cup proves that only when that practice becomes real shooting, with real opponents, does it become compelling.

Maybe it’s because the pros don’t show much emotion (we’re really just watching them do their day jobs, after all). And that leads to my second problem with watching golf: the pros.

I’ll argue for hours that the economics of professional golf are screwy: they play for too much money, being ridiculously well rewarded for a questionable skill. But it is exactly that skill—and the fact that the rest of us don’t possess it—that keeps the game alive and us tuned in. Partly from watching golf on TV I became a player, then as a player I wanted to watch the world’s best to learn from them and ooh and ahh at their feats. 

But all that’s changed. Professional golf has become a freak show. A circus. It’s almost entirely divorced from reality, having little to do with the game you and I play. Three-hundred-yard drives. Bubba-esque curve balls from the trees onto the green. Immaculate conditions everywhere. The near absence of noise. And all that money.

We’re no longer playing anywhere near the same game.

The only other major sport with similarly well developed spectator and participant “divisions” is tennis. Which is another sport I find hard to watch (although I haven’t played in years). And you may recall that tennis was in trouble for a long time both on TV and local courts until recently. 

Those sports that we can both play and watch depend on that symbiosis for their televised success. But I’m convinced that the further what “they” do moves from what “we” do, the less likely we are to watch.

How about this? I’ll start watching them again after they start watching me.

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